Big Ideas for D&T: Big Ideas

Concerning Big Ideas

The work of Harlen and colleagues (e.g., Harlen, 2010) in developing statements of content for science education that were true to the nature of the subject may provide us with a useful model. They divided the content into ideas about science (that is, the way that science as a discipline works), and ideas of science (the key intellectual building blocks of science). What might be developed if the design & technology community adopted such an approach? What would we list as ideas “of” and “about” design & technology?

Ideas about design & technology might include:

  • Through design & technology people develop technologies and products to intervene in the natural and made worlds;
  • Design & technology uses knowledge, skill and understanding from a wide range of sources, especially but not exclusively science and mathematics;
  • There are always many possible and valid solutions to technological and product development challenges, some of which will meet these challenges better than others;
  • The worth of technologies and products developed by people is a matter of judgement;
  • Technologies and products always have unintended consequences beyond intended benefit which cannot be fully predicted by those who develop them.

Ideas of design & technology might include:

Knowledge of materials

Design & technological activity requires the use of materials. And if someone is going to use materials he or she will need to know something about them. So, what would need to be known? Clearly the idea of different materials having different properties is essential. Given the importance of eco-footprint then it will be useful to know something about sources of materials and how they are refined to the state where they are useful. And given the finite nature of the material world it would be useful to know something about the estimated reserves of materials, especially those that are particularly useful and in short supply. This can be listed as:

  • Sources
  • Properties
  • Footprint
  • Longevity

Making decisions about which materials to use are therefore complex and requires much more than a “science” understanding of materials. Marc de Vries (2007) commented on this amusingly and with insight when he wrote, “there’s no such thing as a good electron.” Materials have the properties they do, intrinsically neither good nor bad, but in choosing which material to use we have to make a judgment which requires a range of knowledge and understanding. And, of course, in design & technology education we want young people not only to learn how to make such complex judgments for themselves, but also to critique the judgments made by others. Hence, we believe that deliberately teach something about materials in general is essential.

Knowledge of manufacturing

The next step, of course, is to be able to do something with these materials, and so manufacturing is an important idea of design & technology. In broad sweep terms, manufacturing can be divided into four main methods: subtraction, addition, forming and assembly and overlaid on each of these are methods of finishing. At the moment, addition is receiving considerable attention as additive manufacture is being used to produce items of both simplicity and complexity at very different scales to the point where it will almost certainly be possible to “print” organs for transplant. So, this important area of design & technology can be subdivided as:

  • By subtraction
  • By addition
  • By forming
  • By assembly
  • With finishing

Deciding how a product will be made is also complex, as there will be many ways to achieve a particular “making” outcome. This is further complicated in school in that it takes time to develop the knowledge of making processes into skilful use of those processes. So, we believe that deliberately teaching about manufacturing in general and particular making skills is essential.

Knowledge of functionality

Most of the made world has to “work” so some knowledge of achieving functionality is required. Three categories seem useful: powering, controlling and structuring. Controlling is moving on in leaps-and-bounds with the embedding of electronic intelligence into everyday products becoming commonplace. The technology to achieve this is within the reach of schools through microcontrollers such as PICAXE and Arduino. Equally, providing power is developing in interesting ways in response to concerns about climate change, with a growing emphasis on the use of renewable power sources. So, this important aspect of design & technology can be subdivided as:

  • Powering
  • Controlling
  • Structuring

Deciding how something is going to work involves complex decision making. This is well exemplified by the Bayliss Wind Up radio – a radio powered by a battery isn’t useful when batteries are in short supply or too expensive to buy. Powering by means of human energy stored in a wound-up spring that was structured so it could control the release of this energy slowly over time that could be used to operate a dynamo that powered the radio is an elegant application of the three Big ideas concerned with function. Hence, we believe that deliberately teaching something about achieving function in general is essential.

Knowledge of design

Very little of the made world comes into existence except through purposeful design. Knowledge of design is crucial and recent HMI reports have indicated that teaching designing has long been the Achilles heel of the subject. Four broad methods will be needed: (a) identifying peoples’ needs and wants, (b) identifying market opportunities, (c) generating, developing and communicating design ideas, and (d) evaluating design ideas. This set of methods taken together and used sensibly enables young people to develop the abilities to envisage outcomes that do not yet exist and create them through choosing and using materials and embedding function. Hence this important idea of design & technology can be subdivided as:

  • Identifying peoples’ needs and wants
  • Identifying market opportunities
  • Generating, developing and communicating design ideas
  • Evaluating design ideas

It is well-known that designing is difficult and can only be learned by tackling the activity itself (Choulerton, 2015). We are convinced that identification of a variety of design strategies and explicitly teaching pupils how to use these is important in design & technology.

Knowledge of critique regarding impact

The question that immediately follows is to what extent are designed outcomes of worth?

How do they affect the lives of those who use them and those that make them? How do they affect the planet? Here we immediately see the need for critique. This is different from evaluation as defined in “evaluating design ideas”, in which the evaluator asks of a design idea/outcome: “Did it do what it was supposed to?” In critique the question becomes: “Is what it is supposed to do worth doing and what are its unintended consequences?” Two broad areas of critique are stewardship and justice. Critiquing for stewardship involves considering life cycle analysis and speculating about different economic models – the currently predominant linear economy and the circular economy as espoused by, for example, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2012, 2013). In a just world, all people should be able to live in freedom from hunger and fear and have shelter from harm. They should have opportunities to pursue happiness and make the best of their lives. The made world, full of deliberately designed products, environments and systems, must be held to account by critique. So, critiquing the outcomes of others as well as their own is an important pupil activity. This important idea of technology can be sub-divided as:

  • For justice
  • For stewardship

This critique should take place in a broad sweep way at the level of an environment, a system or product, as well as at a more detailed level in which the decisions concerning the nature of small features within any of these can be subject to critical scrutiny.

Note also that to gain a holistic picture of the subject, all the ideas “of” and “about” design & technology will need to be considered together as they interact with one another when design & technological activity plays out in the hands of industrialists, politicians, the general public, designers, engineers and technologists.

Figure. 2 summarises the Big Ideas.

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